Gone in a Flash

Surveyors in south Florida face a rash of equipment thefts and robberies that started in 2002 and continually plague them today.

By Nancy Luse

aving surveying equipment stolen from a job site is unfortunately part of doing business no matter where you are in the country, but in south Florida, it’s epidemic. Mike Maxwell, PSM, is a board member of the Florida Surveying and Mapping Society (FSMS) and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), and he has discussed the problem for the past four or five years with members nationwide. “Other states have had issues,” he said, “but nothing like Florida,” and especially south Florida where thefts have escalated to armed robberies.

“It’s a violent world out there,” said Bob Jackson, PSM, director of surveying and mapping at Calvin, Giordano and Associates, Inc., in Fort Lauderdale. “There’s punching and even people pulling up along the highway with guns, saying, ‘We’re taking your equipment.’”

Rick Pryce, PSM, of Craven-Thompson, also in Fort Lauderdale, said the thieves “are actually following crews, looking for an opportunity, and some have been pretty brash.”

He recalled an incident three years ago when one of his crews was in a park eating lunch, and “they were ordered out of their truck and onto the ground by six guys with guns.” The equipment was chained inside the truck, and the party chief “was kicked because he wasn’t moving fast enough to get the equipment out.” He was further terrorized when one of the robbers fired a shotgun into the ground near the party chief’s head.

In addition to the physical and emotional dangers to staff, the financial toll to companies having to replace equipment is great. As surveyors well know, equipment can cost up to $35,000 for just one item. “If multiple pieces of equipment are taken, we’re talking $70,000 to $100,000 at a time,” Pryce said, adding that his company has lost six pieces of equipment. Jackson mentioned one company losing as many as 13 items. Since 2002 when south Florida’s dilemma started, FSMS has estimated total equipment losses at $4 million.

Maxwell, who recently retired from WilsonMiller in Naples, Florida, said, “We’re in a recession, and companies can hardly afford to keep replacing equipment.” Adding to the pain is when insurance companies refuse to continue coverage.

FSMS established a committee to look into the problem. Jackson, the initial committee chairman, said the group formed a partnership with the Broward County Sheriff’s office, which would send out bulletins statewide when equipment was stolen, making pawn shops and other law agencies aware. The committee also met with police in Miami and Dade County, where a federal grant was instrumental in tracking down the crimes. “That’s what got it all together for us,” Jackson said.

But then the grant money dried up. Jackson added, “We’re [now] at the mercy of the police on foot patrol.” Pryce, who took over as committee chairman several years ago, said police “want to be helpful, but they have larger fish to fry and generally it’s only cases involving assault that get any attention.”

He said, “We had a special agent from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement assigned to us after I emailed our last governor about our situation. We figured that the state agency could better coordinate with all of the local agencies and at least take an overall picture of the situation instead of a crime-by-crime look. However, that special agent changed three times, and … I kept having to bring the new one up to speed before I could get him to do something. It seems to me that they have other duties besides ours that take them away from our situation, and because ours is intermittent they never accomplish anything. I still keep the special agent informed by email on every incident, just in case; but unless there’s a weapon involved they don’t do anything, so I’ve stopped asking.”

FSMS has had to manage the theft problem on its own. As part of their equipment theft committee’s work, victims are being encouraged to fill out a report that members have developed in order to establish a crime database. Jackson remembered that when he was chairman, “I was so inundated with calls that I couldn’t get my own work done.”

Pryce hears directly from victims—some like the woman who sent him an email this summer saying, “truck broken into and instrument stolen yesterday, Kimberly Blvd. and State Rd 7, North Lauderdale, Broward County. They are out there watching, so your crews should be, too.” Pryce responded that, “I am sending this out to the tri-county area as we speak,” and encouraged the writer to fill out a form so it could be added to the FSMS database.

But while he receives messages like this, he believes there are even more thefts taking place. “People are just getting tired of reporting it.”

Maxwell said there’s also an element of embarrassment that keeps victims from filling out a report; they feel stupid that, even after they had been warned, they couldn’t stop someone from simply popping the lock on a truck and waltzing away with a total station or scanner.

Why South Florida?

 Tips for Thwarting Thefts 

  • Crews need to be aware of their surroundings. If you notice the same vehicle at different jobsites, this could be a potential thief making rounds.
  • Whenever the crew stops for non-work related matters, one person should always stay with the truck.
  • Buy a backpack for your instrument, because thieves often look only for gun cases.
  • If the crew is in the field and using a collector, they should always keep the collector with them, even if walking just a few feet away. It’s bad enough having equipment stolen, but losing data is more heartburn.
  • Install electric locks on your trucks so all doors can be locked easily and all the time.
  • If you have an extended cab, crew cab, or camper top, tint the windows to reduce visibility of the contents. Also, install a double locking system for truck toppers.
  • Park trucks in a fenced and locked lot or garage and remove equipment at night.
  • Make sure your insurance covers rental and leased equipment.
  • Choose instruments with removable face plates that can fit in a shirt pocket. This will render the instrument useless when stolen, and serial numbers could be matched if anyone tries to replace the plate.
  • Push eBay and other sellers for a requirement that all equipment serial numbers be displayed with pictures of the items.
  • All equipment comes with a case, and no case is a certain guarantee the gear has been stolen. You can nevertheless lobby legislatures to require pawnshops to purchase only equipment with a case.
  • Label all instruments and cases with a marker and include the name of your business and an after-hours phone number on the chance an honest person has found your stolen equipment. Place your ID between the tribrach and instrument—a thief likely will not know to look there.
  • In the glove box of each vehicle keep a list of instruments being carried. Include the manufacturer’s name, model, and serial number to help police as well as your staff identify what’s been stolen. Have photos of your equipment easily available.
  • During a theft: Make sure crews know not to fight back. Equipment can be replaced; a life can’t.
(These tips were collected by FSMS’s Mike Maxwell, PSM)
Maxwell believes that it’s the area’s proximity to shipping ports that makes it a hot spot for thefts and robberies. “The port of Miami has a lot of ships. By the time the police paperwork is filled out, the stuff is out of the country.”

He theorized that stolen equipment is destined to Central and South America, developing areas where such items are increasingly needed. Legitimately purchasing—say a $15,000 piece of equipment—is expensive enough, but then other governments slap a 20% or 30% tariff, and suddenly a black market counterpart for $3,000 is quite attractive. Pryce added that legitimate equipment dealers have not been able to get paid in those regions so they’ve stopped selling there, which further feeds the black market.

In addition to privately owned ships exporting stolen equipment, Pryce said that, “it’s pretty easy to ship by UPS and FedEx.”

A surveying equipment distributor in Mexico, who declined to be identified because he feared retaliation, said in an email that “I know a few guys that are buying 
instruments from pawn shops, and 
also much equipment is getting stolen in Mexico and going south to El Salvador and Colombia.

“There are guys in Leon, Guanajuato; Colima, Colima; Mexico City etc. [who] call themselves distributors and sell equipment in Mexico, but we need to be careful pointing a finger at somebody, because we can get shot, too …. Authorities won’t do anything; they have higher priorities, and some may be involved.”

Attempts at Prevention

Pryce said that as part of his committee’s work, he routinely sends FSMS members reminders to be vigilant when leaving the office with equipment, including that they “should always have two people near the instrument at all times, because these guys can be in and out in less than a minute. The irony is that in some cases this is equipment that has been designed to work on its own, and now you have to have babysitters.”

Pryce also has sent to his members police mug shots of those arrested for equipment theft. Another step his company sometimes takes is to hire off-duty police officers. He said he hires them “when we have jobs in suspicious neighborhoods. We’ve learned our lesson.”

Jackson said his company uses a stainless-steel compartment in the truck bed where the equipment is stored underneath everything else. “They have to steal the truck if they want it, and we have GPS on the truck.” He cautioned, however, that “the more we protect our equipment, the more violent they may become. These are tough economic times, and people are desperate. People need to eat.”

Maxwell, who has written in the past about the problem, said that surveying and engineering firms, professional associations, and equipment manufacturers all need to come together to address the problem. One step, he said, is to make equipment traceable by owners maintaining a complete and accurate list of the make, model, serial number, and color of all instruments and brand them with the company’s name.

Leica Geosystems has developed personal identification numbers (PIN) for a variety of its electronic gear, Maxwell said, and Sokkia has offered a PIN setup on its total stations since 2003. Proof of ownership is required before a new PIN can be issued. Many Topcon total stations have password protection, and customers can request an authorization file that can be programmed so the instruments work only in a predetermined geographic area. That way the equipment is no good outside the set area. Maxwell also said Trimble has a four-layer level of theft protection, online equipment registration, and a database for stolen goods.

For all the safeguards, though, Maxwell said, “PINs work only if the crews use them, and codes can be broken. They’ll steal something, then find out they can’t use it, then steal another one.”
As to putting tracking devices on the instruments, he added, “you could track it to a little house on a corner in Miami, but probably the police will be too busy with more pressing issues of life, health, and safety to do anything for you.”

On its website, FSMS encourages victims to contact the hotline of National Equipment Register (NER), a theft-prevention and recovery service that is part of Verisk Analytics, a risk-assessment company based in Jersey City, New Jersey.

“While equipment like surveying instruments is not NER’s core competency, NER is aware of this problem and has been tracking the south Florida thefts for years,” said Ryan Shepherd, NER’s operations manager. NER focuses on equipment ranging from bulldozers to farm tractor implements. “If there’s a piece of equipment with a serial number and it’s used in the construction, agriculture, mining, or forest industries, then we are interested,” he said.

“Our database is designed to work essentially as a DMV for equipment owners. One of the leading factors that drive high-value equipment theft is the lack of any ownership information. Unlike automobiles, it is very difficult for a police officer to quickly know if the person they just pulled over actually owns the machines,” asserted Shepherd. Through a 24/7 operations center and online access to NER’s data, law enforcement officials have added help during a traffic stop or property search.

FSMS director Marilyn Evers said the theft problem “is discussed at every quarterly board meeting, and quite frankly everyone is hopeless about it. It just keeps continuing, and every avenue we’ve pursued has not been 100% successful. But we do not give up. We’re committed to helping our members find a solution.” Evers said anyone who has ideas is encouraged to contact her at 
Nancy Luse is assistant editor of this magazine.

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